Newport News, Virginia’s fifth largest city, is home to the new Mayer and Dorene Sarfan Food Forest. The food forest is designed to help counteract food deserts — where access to healthy, fresh food is scarce — in the city’s southeast neighborhood. At the same time, it is promoting the environmental benefits of productive green space. Situated on 5 acres gifted by the Sarfan family, this food forest will be the third-largest in the United States.

Early in the planning stages, Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center was invited to collaborate with a stakeholders committee from the Newport News Green Foundation and teachers from Discovery STEM Academy, located across the street from the site, to develop a conceptual site master plan.

This project was funded in part by Newport News Shipbuilding and the U.S. Forest Service in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Forestry Urban and Community Forestry Program. It recently received an additional $125,000 grant from the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America and the African American Mayors Association to the City of Newport News and the Newport News Green Foundation.

Tami Farinholt, executive director of the Newport News Green Foundation, said the university partnership far surpassed expectations.

“The team from Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center was not just working with us, they were working with our entire community,” Farinholt said. “They had to take into consideration all the voices and feedback from me, the Green Foundation, 18 board members, official representatives of the City of Newport News, and others. The way that they were able to drill down and translate the varied visions and opinions of hundreds of people was amazing.

“When they brought me the conceptual plan, I almost cried because I just could not believe that they had gotten everything into the plan,” she said.

The final design concept included edible screener vegetables and fruit trees, a universal garden, a story tree and storytelling area, berry patch, Tsenacommacah indigenous garden, edible wetland, outdoor classroom, and pollinator meadow, among other elements.

The Sarfan Food Forest is an ongoing project that will take several years to implement fully. Additional sections of the conceptual plan may advance to next stages as fundraising permits.

Center Director Elizabeth Gilboy said missions of the center and the Newport News Foundation meshed well as they worked together on the project.

“We are both committed to helping the community with projects that can actually be implemented,” she said. “I am proud of our amazing team of students and faculty. None of this could be accomplished without them.”

One of the team members, Hayley Harrington, was a master’s degree student in the Landscape Architecture program and a student employee at the center when the project started in early 2022. She completed the final conceptual design, which included creating detailed perspective drawings and assembling a comprehensive plant palette with more than 100 proposed varieties of edible plants that might be suitable for growing at the Sarfan Food Forest. 

Harrington, who is employed as a landscape designer at the center since finishing her coursework at Virginia Tech, created a simplified three-page harvest calendar with each edible species and its harvest periods to make it easier for people to understand how many different types of food could be available at different times throughout the year.

Harrington said she was drawn to the Sarfan project because she wanted to address food security issues in a way that could actually make a difference. In the final design, she proposed a free community farm stand, which the Sarfan Food Forest hopes to incorporate, eventually.

“I feel fortunate to have played a small part in something with the potential to have a serious positive impact in Newport News,” Harrington said.

people looking at a large poster of a conceptual site plan

people discussing a large poster
Members of the CDAC design team presented preliminary design concepts to community members at an on-site visit in 2022.
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